Meteorologist Brent Wachter ’96 has predicted the weather in the shadow of disaster — devastating hurricanes, raging forest fires, and even a space-shuttle tragedy. But he might not have been on the scene making pinpoint, hyper-local weather forecasts to aid in disaster recovery if a UW–Madison counselor hadn’t inadvertently steered him toward science.
“I didn’t go to UW–Madison to become a meteorologist. I thought I’d go to law school,” the Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, native says. “But a counselor told me I’d have to take another English class. I’ve always had weather in mind because I’m a big hunter. So, I went in that direction.”
As an undergraduate, Wachter felt welcomed in the department. Professors such as David Houghton, John Martin, and Charles Stearns ’50, MS’52, PhD’67 went out of their way to invite students to share their stories and research during office hours. Houghton also hosted a party at his home for new undergraduates. “Being able to interact with all of these high-profile professors brought it all back to earth,” Wachter says. “It was a great family atmosphere.” After earning his bachelor’s degree in atmospheric and oceanic sciences in 1996, Wachter did a stint in the private sector then joined the ranks of the National Weather Service.
“Being able to interact with all of these high-profile professors brought it all back to earth. It was a great family atmosphere.”
Now based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Wachter is one of about 80 forecasters that the service sends to special events — hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and even presidential inaugurations and the Super Bowl. He has been deployed to help with events such as Hurricane Katrina, the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, Arizona’s Wallow fire, and even the Black Saturday fires that killed 173 people and consumed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria, Australia.
Wachter is sent to disaster scenes to make hyper-local forecasts using weather balloons, specialized computer software, and mobile weather stations. “Our primary mission is tactical strategy and to allow emergency officials to properly manage their resources and manage the disaster,” he says. “We provide intelligence that can save lives.”
It is especially moving for Wachter to hear the personal survival stories tied to the tragedies, including one story from the beginning days of the Katrina disaster when people talked about coexisting with deer as they took shelter — side by side — on their rooftops during the high storm surge. “When you see where a post office used to be, and it’s gone,” he says, “and you look into the trees and they are filled with unopened mail, it hits you.”
Thank you, Crawford County, for Brent Wachter — and his scientific skills that have helped the nation recover from major disasters by guiding emergency personnel to do their jobs safely and effectively.